“I was dreads all over, shrunken into weird shapes and bright red. Patchwork bell bottoms and a total street urchin. Screaming my brains out and all I remember is the song ended and I was on the floor on my back and Gia comes over and asked, “Are you okay?”–Karyn Crisis
In the early-mid 00’s I had the pleasure of befriending various members of the band Crisis, a group that was very far ahead of their time (and while VERY influential) still deserve more props. Their song “Mechanical Man” profoundly inspired me strive to be a better person. Over the course of a year or so I interviewed various members and friends of Crisis for an intended book on their story, which was never completed. What resulted instead is this retrospective centered on their first album “8 Convulsions” and their early days at CBGB’s (alongside bands like Prong and Candiria).
This revised retrospective is exclusive to Metal Riot and features combined interviews with founders Karyn Crisis, Afzaal Nasiruddeen, Gia Chaun Wang and Fred Waring plus Steve McCallister (producer), Norm Westberg (Swans guitarist) and John Murren (scenester friend). A vital look at an awesome period in NYC underground metal and hardcore history amidst the birth of the first band with a female vocalist who could go toe to toe with any death metal or hardcore act.
Karyn is currently creating music with her husband Davide Tiso of Ephel Duath and was recently on the newest Giant Squid and Aborym records, but the music of her former sludgy, avant-garde band remains as crucial and “must know” as ever for metal heads!
To read the Crisis retrospective click HERE!
MORE THAN DOWN-An “8 Convulsions” Retrospective.
By Morgan Y. Evans
(Written in April of 2004 just before this seminal N.Y. turned L.A. band re-released their 1st ever record “8 Convulsions” and completed their fourth album “Like Sheep Led To Slaughter” with producer Billy Anderson (Brutal Truth, Melvins, High On Fire).
1.”Standing All Alone”-Introduction
The quiet is split by a new noise, writhing notes spreading from the speaker and into your unprotected mind. It demands attention, an angry, living, heated and percussive force that instantly sparks a feeling of experience. Then, sudden like a shot of adrenaline to the heart, above it all comes the soaring voice of a woman, sailing on fits of release and then plunging off the deep end of a cathartic banshee scream. Can you survive the siren sound?
It goes beyond categorizations of “metal” or “hard-core”, though many of the recognizable traits are present. There is the fury, the passion and the release, but it is more unhinged and yet focused, a welcome contradiction. You are experiencing the song
known as “Drilling Me”, and for virgin ears, music can never be the safe place it used to be.
Aware of this, as well as their role in music and what they must face in life to do what they do, the band is honest. They are simply called Crisis.
The sound of Crisis has always stood alone, first wrought into breathing metal noise by four human beings of multi-cultural backgrounds who, in past ages, would most likely never have met (Pakistani Guitarist Afzaal Nasiruddeen, dreaded vocalist Karyn Crisis, Upstate, NY Drummer Fred Waring and Taiwanese bassist Gia Chuan Wang). Thankfully the smaller world of the modern age allowed the meetings, which would produce a new musical gift.
Bridging social, gender and emotional divides, these four musicians chose not to be crushed by the weight of the world, though they feel the burdens of societal miscommunication and personal pain. They have chosen instead to carry a torch for experimentation and life exploration, taking their loves, losses and burdens and channeling it into a sound unlike any other.
They blazed trails others feared to tread, fighting uphill battles and winning. Cobwebbed ignorance and classification schemes fall by the wayside in the wake of this band, and they are well aware of it, choosing to take as their moniker an awareness of their straights. Fearlessly, they face the world, as Crisis, to help overcome the larger crisis around us. The name may be short and sweet, but it contains meaning upon meaning, a key to understanding one of the greatest heavy bands, if not just plain bands, in rock music history.
Crisis formed during the gold rush of the “alternative” movement, in the early nineties. While the band contained elements of this wider movement that had spawned from the seeds planted by independent hard-core pioneers like Black Flag and sludgy metal bands in the 80’s, Crisis is decidedly different and more confrontational than your average hard rock, alternative or hard-core faire.
Over the years, Crisis persevered, against all odds, to retain their integrity, to become underground legends and to set new standards for gender and ethnic equality in music, all the while facing such seemingly insurmountable barriers as a long standing corporate media disinterest in heavy bands with female singers for no other reason than old world prejudice disguised as marketing strategy. (*Thankfully nowadays circa 2011 this has been shattered)!
Author/composer Robert Jourdain writes in his book Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination that, “Music’s movement is more perfect than a body’s. Physically we fumble through a world of inelegant, discontinuous activity…But well crafted music creates the very world it moves through, meeting very anticipation with a graceful resolution, and raising new anticipations at every turn” (Jourdain, 303).
At first glance one wouldn’t necessarily think Crisis fit this definition to a tee, perhaps overcome by the sheer intensity and brutality of some of the band’s darker passages. Witnessing the bands frenzied movements onstage would also seem to render the above passage inappropriate. Closer examination, however, reveals that there is indeed “graceful resolution” to the thematic content of the material and that the movements of the group correspond to the bleak sustenance of the songs. Though one would still be hard pressed to call some of vocalist Karyn’s contorted throat rattlings graceful, at other times her singing voice emerges, a sensual blanket of love, pain and self-discovery that treads waters of vulnerability while simultaneously molting into an impenetrable source of strength that invigorates listeners. She is a wellspring unto herself, a conduit of her environments, both inner and exterior.
The bottom line is that the band’s songs are not contrived, accepting themselves and the listener at face value. There is no false lure here, a hidden agenda based purely on a desire for profit. You are invited to participate in the feelings evoked or not, a ritual submission, but if not you are free to continue on your merry way. The rest of us will remain, those of us scarred by reality and trying to cope through the embrace of a
group exploration of chaos. It is a purging, a stripping back of layers to reveal what lies beneath.
The sound is a glimpse at the beating heart of darkness and a fresh breath across the membranes, hoping that some light will pour through and we can face what the day brings.
2. Keep Me From Falling.
Morgan Y.Evans: Karyn, from a couple of interviews you’ve stated when you started out you knew some stuff about the industry (not much) and were shy and introverted. How did you get over that and why did you become a singer if you knew this about
Karyn Crisis (Vocals): I was always into music, even in grade school. My great, great grandfather was a gypsy so I wanted to be a violinist. My mother was a pianist so I grew
up playing piano and violin. My dad played guitar and harmonica so I wanted to play those also. I always wanted to play music. I grew up in Chicago and didn’t really have a metal vocabulary. My cousin did, but mostly Steve Vai, Malmsteen…what I consider opera metal. Vibrato voice, out there. Not what I was looking for. I went a more industrial route. I was really into Japanese Noise Bands back when I was in seventh
I was outside Chicago and way into music going on over there. In my garage I had a little boutique where I sold clothes mostly to my friends in the area because I lived in the suburbs. I saw a record distro called Subterranean, lots of German, Jap industrial in terms of Primal. Not like today. Neubauten-esque shit, even more primal than that. I was always looking for heaviness. Darkness and Light were part of my life. I worked in a record store in Chicago, back in those days you could buy albums based on the artwork and never be disappointed. If you found a dark, trippy looking cover the music was going to be dark and trippy. I had tons of vinyl. Cocteau twins, a lot of Industrial Stuff. I was one of the oddballs in town. It’s a pretty rich town, I was one of the poor people and didn’t have a lot of friends. There were a couple guys who had bands.
Karyn: I was too shy to ever meet those guys. I practiced alone and fit in with guys more than girls. I had guy friends who had guitars and I had gotten an analogue synth and some other stuff. We’d trade off 4 tracks and instruments from sixth grade on… I started playing guitar and was taking violin lessons from a woman who had escaped from Russia. Her son/ was older and in middle school. I still wanted to be in a band but couldn’t yet write anything I really wanted to hear. I Bought a Gibson
Hollow body copy and a no name bass. Before I graduated High School I’d go to lots of shows in Chicago and spent a lot of time at Wax Trax (the industrial record store/label Mecca. One of the high school bands invited me to sing for them. We had a bunch of rehearsals but nothing came of it. I really was extremely introverted. I was one of those kids who was made fun of in school. I was a good student, total nerd.
I had health problems that made me look different. It was a big step for me to do that, I always wanted to but couldn’t find the right situation. What I ended up doing, I started this project called Mangle Dorothy which was me and later on a close to graduated High School. I graduated early because I had really good grades. I was a nerd. I had all this free time. I was working to go to art college in NY. Inspired by 1984, tangerine dream. It was a combination of Neubauten/Cocteau twins…Sinnead O’Connor’s “Lion and the Cobra”, before she went soft. I had my head shaved around then and she came out and I thought, “Ooh, I’ll check her out.” A punker I knew wrote music for me and he covered her songs and I’d sing with it. I’d use Scrap Metal, chimes from drill bits, scraps, latex, a synth. Vox digital pedal…a few little things. I was using my voice as an ethereal instrument, screaming only eventually. My dreams of being in a band before college went completely unfulfilled. Once I moved on in my dorms I made a friend named Jesse. He was an alternative bassist. He heard some of my tapes and knew Slint and he encouraged me to send some stuff to Slint because they were looking for a female singer. It started that I was too shy to sing around them. I’d sit in the kitchen with the mic and they’d have the pedal and speakers in the bedroom and I would practice until I got my guts up to sing around
them. It didn’t pan out.
Evans: How did you get into the screamier side of what you do?
Karyn: Jesse and I would jam with all the lights out. My friend Jason would play objects for a metal beat. After a few weeks I let out my first primal scream in front of other people. We were playing a song and it became real intense and I let out my first primal scream. That was where it all broke open for me, where I really found the power in my own voice. It scared the shit out of everyone! My whole early music experience was not what you would call a formal band experience. It was more self-made D.I.Y. sort of primal emotion. That project fell apart from personal problems. Music was aggravating for me. I always was called out by it but couldn’t play but it was frustrating because I couldn’t get the sound I was looking for. It was a different world that I was not privy to. I would try to give it up for awhile and would come back and try again. After that ensemble fell apart I was through with it for awhile. I was in NY by that time.
Evans: And you Afzaal? What first got you into music/when did you know it would become your primary path?
Afzaal (Guitar): My parents, my mother and father were both real big fans of music. They were aficionados. They were into Indian Classical Music and what you’d consider Indian/Pakistani folk music or Sufi music, you know. I grew up listening to indigenous music from where I’m from, basically. My dad and mom were part of this group, it was like ten different couples who got together and they would once a month or two months they’d have a concert in their homes. What they’d do is they’d get some of the world famous, or at least in our world it was, there was no “world music” back then as a genre. I’m from Karachi, Pakistan.
The tradition in Pakistan is to have concerts in people’s homes and invite 50 to 100 people and in the living room or main hall they put white sheets down and everybody sits on the floor…for the concert. Musicians on one end of the hall, like an acoustic concert. Vocal with harmony, tabla, sitar, depending on what sort of classical
music. Basically, I grew up with the same concerts of our renowned musicians in Pakistan, some of them were sitar virtuosos, some of them tabla, some vocal…listening to them. The concert starts at midnight and goes to dawn sometimes and my parents used to actually let me stay up and watch with them. That had quite an impact, but it was very adult oriented music because Indian Classical music is difficult to grasp. It’s complicated, much of it is improvisational. It is pretty out there stuff, but it was in me. It was very interesting, but as I grew up after that my dad traveled a lot, he used to go to Europe and the States and China because he used to buy factory machines for the government, setting up factories, so what I used to do, I’m talking like 70’s, you know… I used to read Archie Comics back then and what I used to do is I would take a page of one page catalog like they have in comics even now with latest releases and …Shit, they’d even have K-Tel Classics and stuff, (sounds of the 70’s) but they’d also have the popular releases. I used to circle some of these and my dad would go on his trips and come back with the ones he could find.
Evans: Did he ever dislike any of the stuff?
Afzaal: This is what happened…My dad didn’t really know what he was getting for me. He was like, “Ok, you want this, I’ll get it”. He was that clueless about it. I would order stuff like the Jackson Five and James Brown but at the same time I’d circle Black Sabbath albums and Deep Purple albums. It was all the same to him, ‘cuz it was out of a magazine. I started listening to that and some of the K-Tel compilations. I’m talking like ‘72, ‘73…that early.
Evans: So when did you 1st pick up a guitar?
Afzaal: Dude! I didn’t start playing guitar, really until I graduated from college. I was like 22, so that was really late for me. See what happened was it was very difficult because I’m a lefty. Tried to play righty, thought that was how it was done. My mom bought me an acoustic Yamaha and nobody told me I should try stringing it the other way around. Back then nobody I knew even really knew! I tried taking guitar lessons a couple of times, but it was a righty guitar. I was dumb enough not to do anything about it and never picked it up, then finally after I graduated from college I had the money so I decided one day with my buddies that I wanted to start a band.
I was working as an architect so I went out and bought a drum machine, a bass guitar, an electric guitar and started teaching myself how to play all of them/program beats…I started on bass ‘cuz it was a little easier and I moved on to the guitar and was playing all the instruments along with my friends…I had a sampler…that became Stalwart, yeah.
After I learned guitar I felt the freedom to do what I wanted. I came to America for education and I had to do well. If I didn’t graduate from college I would have had to go back home. Part and parcel of my whole deal in coming to America was my promise to my parents that I’d get through college. The way we grew up in Pakistan it was that the parents support you all the way up through when you graduate. After that you’re on your own.
Evans: So you had to do your homework…
Afzaal: That’s right, I had to do my homework and I had to graduate college. That was my ticket to the United States. After that I kept my end of the bargain and even worked as an architect for seven years after that. While I was in Stalwart the whole time and up until the first year of Crisis. At the end of the first year I quit the
Evans: When did you know for certain that you wouldn’t pursue architecture further?
Afzaal: What happened was sort of a coincidence, in ‘94 Crisis got really busy. I sort of funded the early demos and stuff because I was making money. So I was funding the band and after working for 7 years at a pretty famous firm in NY, the guy who ran the
firm, which had been around for 50 years, was over 70 and wanted to retire. So he closed the firm down. When the firm closed down I moved to NY, two weeks after graduating from college. I got unemployment but also had some savings from 7 years of working, so I funded the band and lived off the savings for a year and a half. The band was really busy, already working on 8 convulsions. Fist we did 3 songs then five other songs on a second demo and then combined the two. We got a few calls, Metal Blade called out of the blue, Marco.
The Aquarian write us up (the magazine that used to be called East Coast Rocker) in an up and coming new bands story. We were a brand new band and I don’t even remember how they got a hold of us, but anyway, we were with all these up and coming new bands. I remember the Unsane was in there and Cop Shoot Cop, us, Helmet was in there. It was like all the NY bands, you know. They had us along with them, which I thought was funny. Dude, before anything was out, any of that shit!
Marco Barbieri, now the pres of Century Media, back then was a low level A&R rep for Metal Blade, a talent scout back then. So anyway, he calls me from California. He calls us and was cool and says, “look, I have this paper I got, it’s called the Aquarian.” He’s sitting in California reading a local fucking east Coast rag, and he’s like, “You guys sound really interesting.” He asked for a tape and we sent a three-song demo.
Evans: Before Metal Blade you released “8 Convulsions” and your first band’s stuff with Fred Waring, the band Stalwart. How did you work with famed producer Stevie McCallister (Agnostic Front, Sheer Terror)?
Afzaal: I moved to New York from Chicago and a couple of friends of mine from Chicago moved with me, you know…so that’s when we were Stalwart, it was all Chicago people moving to NY and starting the band. Every time I got records I bought any local bands. I was a huge vinyl collector then. Prong was one, Nice Strong Arm, a Sonic Youth school band on Twin Tone out of Minneapolis, on the same label as Soul Asylum and Babes In Toyland. That label had Sheer Terror and Stevie McCallister did their first record, an amazing record. Agnostic Front’s “Live at CBGB’s”. I was buying all this stuff that Stevie had produced. I also liked Don Fury, who did a lot of Revelation stuff. Wharton Tiers.
A big band on the scene was the Swans which was my fuckin’ major, major influence. Back then that was one of the bands I was really, really into because they were just one of the weirdest, slowest, dirtiest band I ever heard. Stevie was working with Swans and Ted Parsons; the drummer from Swans was also in this band Prong (which was three of the guys who worked at CBGB’s). They were local. They were calling themselves metal-core and weren’t allowed to play gigs in NY. They had long hair and could only play the Sunday matinees. They were way, way extreme for the time. Louise, the manager at CB’s, she just didn’t know what the hell to do with ‘em, so she wouldn’t put them on a regular night ‘cuz they were way too loud. They ended up playing with all the local HC bands, Cro Mags, Sheer Terror, Sick of it all. They were all kiddy bands back then, all teens. So Stevie was working with all these bands and I liked his production the best because he paid a lot of attention to drums and bass. To me, in heavy music, even though it is a guitar oriented sound, I’ve always been leaning way more towards the bottom end.
I’m more into bass and drums and the body of metal than fucking Yngwie type of bullshit stuff, thin guitar sounds. I don’t like a lot of the European metal stuff, I think it’s weak sounding. I like some of the English bands, but the German bands and Swedish bands I think a lot of the production is really thinned out. There are exceptions, like Entombed and Grave and Refused (I love refused), who sound big, but most of the European bands still sound thin and I don’t get into them.
Evans: Speaking of architecture, some of your later songs like “Methodology” are arranged like buildings.
Afzaal: Yes, that’s very, very true. Most of our songs, even our shorter songs are geometric type progressions that sometimes build upon themselves. The parts are related to each other but the parts are either 2x or 3x or 4x. There is a math involved to the songwriting and its been there since day one.
Evans: How did you meet McCallister?
Afzaal: We were working with this guy, his name was Russell, this lower east side fucking rat. He had an 8 track fucking recorder in his living room. I’m talking like an 8 track reel to reel, not an 8-track tape. Analog 8 track. We were doing these Stalwart demos on it. We did a cover of the Stooges then a couple of other
songs that were basically a drum machine, bass, guitar and some keyboards. Russel in this hovel in the lower east side. After that we wanted to really record an album. Back then it was like, man, if you didn’t have a label you basically had to do the album all
on your own. It was basically the only alternative.So I didn’t want to like hurt Russel’s feelings and tell him we didn’t want to record the album with him but I was like, “dude, have you heard of this guy Steve McCallister?”
See, we had just moved to NY and he was like “Steve, yeah he’s a buddy of mine.” I’m like “really?” and he’s like “yeah, Stevie’s a way cool guy.” And I’m like “dude, do you think you could arrange a meeting? We’d like to meet the guy and see if he likes our stuff. We’d like to work with him.” He says, “Well here’s his number, try calling him. He’ll be
Evans: So he didn’t get mad?
Afzaal: Well, that’s the thing, I thought he was gonna be this big megalomaniac NY guy, you know… so we call Steve McCallister and we get his answering machine
and he’s got this weird fucking answering machine about like, guns and drugs and fucking white slavery, he’s way out! He didn’t call us back for a few days and we thought, great, he’s gonna blow us off, and then we get a call back from him a few days later and he says, “hey, I just got back in town, I was in Europe. Yeah, I’m playing bass for this band, we just did Europe. Yeah, and we’re doing a show at Columbia University, you guys wanna come check it out?”
Evans: Well, what was it?
Afzaal: He said, “It’s the Swans. I’m playing bass in Swans.” and I’m like, “Fuck.” I just couldn’t believe it. I said yes, but then we got to talking and I was so shy with the dude and he was like, “Ok, show up to the gig we’ll put you on the list.” And Morgan, we were so retarded we didn’t go to the show because we thought we Wouldn’t be on the list! We thought the guy was pulling our chain, you know. We didn’t go to the fucking show, and then he calls back and he’s like, “Why didn’t you guys show up?” We were like,” uh, uhmm,.. uh,” like idiots! Stevie says, “Ok, were playing this show at the lower east side called “The World”, which was like this awesome club. A different World than the one now, this was Houston and Avenue A. We went to the show. To make a long story short, I used to have a loft in NY that Stalwart and then Crisis used. We were breaking in and out of our loft where we used to rehearse. It was 4 blocks away from the World Trade Center in Downtown, New York near the South Street Seaport. I’m talking about in the financial district. Wall Street and Water. So uh, we were rehearsing there and Stevie was like, “If we’re gonna work together I wanna check out one of your rehearsals”. And we were like, “really?” He says, “Yeah, I just wanna check out what you guys sound like.” We had a p.a. that we ran a drum machine through, a keyboard sampler and bass and gits and vocals. So Stevie comes over with his strongbox touring briefcase. Sits on the couch, this shaved headed HC guy, young dude, I thought he was in his 20’s but it turns out he was in his 30’s back then. He sits down, takes out a notebook and is like “Alright, let’s go.” I was like “Really?” We start fucking jamming. He’s taking notes and shit and I was thinking, like, “This guy is a total nerd!”
Afzaal: (laughing) He starts working with us, and this is pre-computers. Before you could put bullshit on Protools, but what we ended up doing was Stevie bought a Mac plus, a children’s school computer and we got this early program called Audio Vision, which was a sequencing and recording program. He basically 89’ started recording the album in a 2 year period, first guy I knew that recorded the whole album on computers. When the Stalwart album was finished he became my roommate and we started producing other albums.
Stalwart talked to labels in Europe, talked to John Loder, who produced Big Black, Jesus and Mary Chain, Fugazi, who was legendary in London. He came to NY and met with us. He didn’t want to give us any money, just wanted to put out the record. We were so stupid we didn’t go for it, and it would have made Stalwart. He produced the 1st Jesus and Mary Chain which became a multi-platinum hit. Revolting Cocks. Real cool shit. He came to my apartment. Another guy gave us money to put it out in Europe, semaphore records. It was surprising they were even interested in us because most of Stalwart’s shit was so fucking heavy. Most of their label stuff was like, Buffalo Tom. That was their main band. So anyway, that’s how I met Stevie and things progressed until Stalwart broke up on the eve of our European tour.
Evans: The opposite of Joy Division. At least no one died in Stalwart.
Afzaal: And so then for a year I didn’t do anything. Fred Waring (1st Crisis drummer) was actually the last drummer in Stalwart. Towards the end of Stalwart we had a real drummer playing the drum machine parts, simulating the rhythms. We became like a live band with samples. We basically turned it into a rock band with electronics involved (a 5 piece).
Evans: Stevie, could you give us a little of your musical background and how you ended up doing what you did with recording? How did you first get interested in underground music/HC bands and recording them? What was it about the music that touched you.
Stevie McCallister (producer): I’m an old man now and my early musical influences were in the 60’s, mostly psychedelic and blues. There is a similar approach to a lot of 60’s hard and psychedelic music compared to punk/hardcore. To me it was like a revival. My parents listened to a lot of 50’s and 60’s soul/R&B, folk and early rock and roll. I got a guitar when I was 11 and was always playing in bands. In the early 70’s got into what was considered some of the more twisted music coming out at the time, the Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart and later Kraftwerk. It was then that I realized that the recording studio was a musical instrument as well. I started experimenting with recording while playing in various bands.Mid seventies, I heard the Stooges and I became very influenced by them. The band I was in started changing our style because of this and then the Ramones first record came out. I could play every song on that record. I was living in Utah and we couldn’t get any gigs because punk didn’t catch on until a few of us started renting space and putting on shows. In no time there was a scene. The movie “Salt Lake City Punks” was loosely based on the later members of this scene. The names in the movie were all people in the scene, but the story was mostly fiction. I guess the screenwriter was one of those kids. I moved to NYC in 82 with Mike Kirkland (later founding member of Prong), worked at CBGB’s, played in some bands. Later I started working mostly as a recording engineer/producer and also touring a lot as a sound engineer and seeing the world.
Evans: So then you talked to Afzaal?
Stevie: Afzaal called me up one day. He got my number from mutual friends. He needed a producer and knew we had similar tastes in music. I started helping them with Stalwart. They were doing a techno/hardcore combination kinda like Big Black, but quite original. We spent years working on getting the record out and having a great time doing it, but then Ministry, Nine Inch Nails etc. records were coming out with a similar directional style and kinda took the air out of the balloon. All but the bass player lived together in a loft on Wall Street. We had wanted to make hard-core with computers. I had just started using computers as a music tool and bought an early Macintosh computer, but Stalwart really got me doing tricks. Later when Stalwart faded and when everyone went their way, I moved in with Afzaal. We started doing dance remixes and goofing with hard techno. We were called “Fungal Power” and we never released any of it, so there were some DAT tapes and a bunch of cassettes. People were actually playing our stuff in clubs and the band Brutal Truth used our tape as their intro music on tour.
We sort of lost interest when Crisis took off. Afzaal was and had been an architect by profession and I was doing recording and touring as a sound engineer and musician. After Stalwart, Afzaal began jamming with a lot of people before finally getting Crisis going. We didn’t have much money as we were living in Manhattan. And neither of us made much money. Recording and architecture doesn’t pay as well as people think. So we would spend a lot time going to shows, we could always get in for free to most any show we wanted as we knew everyone on the scene and most of the doormen and club owners. I’ve seen a lot of really lame bands get major label deals and many really good original bands get no label recognition.
Evans: Life’s a bitch.
Stevie: I remember seeing one of Helmet’s early shows with Afzaal and we were both blown away. I had tried to talk to several labels about them, but most didn’t think they would sell. A year later they won album of the year. I actually was one of the people considered to be the engineer/producer on the album, but they didn’t like the fact that I wanted to spend several weeks recording it, so they had my friend Wharton Tiers, who said he could do it in less than one week at his studio and he succeeded. Problem was they spent a huge amount of time and money remixing and stuff. Don’t remember the exact figures though. I’m sure Wharton wished he could have spent more time on the original recording. I guess they didn’t have much confidence that it was gonna do very well.
Stevie: Back to Crisis. We recorded the first demo for very little money at LoHo studio. It was in the basement of a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. It was very small, awful acoustics, stuffy, smelly, but decent equipment. They got signed from that demo and the label eventually released it as the “8 Convulsions” album. I don’t remember details, but we did go back and did the second Crisis record there, but spent more time/money. We later did recordings at nicer studios. But now when I listen to the earlier Crisis recordings I can smell LoHo in the songs, as spending night after night there will do that to ya! I went on tour with them a couple times as well as I liked that better than sitting in a recording studio day after day. Eventually Karyn moved in and Afzaal quit the architecture firm so they could focus on Crisis. They then took up part time jobs.
Evans: Could you give me some anecdotes from your experience with Stalwart/meeting Afzaal and your involvement with Swans as well as the sessions for “8 Convulsions”?
Stevie: I answered most of this one before so I’ll start with Swans. I started working with Swans as a recording/live sound engineer. Michael, the singer/band leader was very difficult to work with. When it came time to do the tour after spending several painful months making one of the records, the bass player Al, decided he had enough and quit. A few days later the drummer Virgil quit. He asked me to fill in on bass while he tried out a few drummers. It was supposed to be only for a week or two as my appearance didn’t fit the Bat Cave image he was looking for. Besides, I was his sound engineer for the tour. I ended up touring as the bass player for the next year and recording several records. It was fun touring with Swans; most of the musicians were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I guess you’d have to be to deal with the sadistic nature of the bandleader. The worst part was the sound checks and performing, but that was a small part of touring.
Evans: What was it in the Crisis sound or approach that enticed you to work with them and struck you as unique?
Stevie: They have an original sound, and they are not trying to imitate their favorite bands. This is unusual and what I consider the most important thing. This has helped them in a lot of ways and has hindered them as well, as people tend to only like what they have heard many times before. Who knows…maybe some day, maybe years from now, Crisis will be a
classic. Many classic blues, jazz and rock musicians barely got by in their time, only to become popular when they are old or gone.
Evans: So how’d you form Crisis, Afzaal?
Afzaal: I was taking a year off because I was sort of burnt out. The electronics had worn me down too. Taking all the electronics on the road including our pa system and the monitor system. It was really rough because it was a major amount of set-up for every live show. It was sort of like what Ministry was doing but with no money and label support. So I took a year off and hardly even played any songs, just doing architecture. Fred our drummer kept badgering me that whole time like, “Dude, let’s start a metal band.” Straight ahead rock. I was like,” I don’t know if I’m good enough for straight ahead.”
Evans: It’s pretty insane to hear you say that.
Afzaal: I always wanted to do something new and innovative with music and not just a regular straight-ahead rock band. That would go against what I believed in. As a dj I felt the same thing. In Chicago I always used to play really obscure and eclectic types of shit. If I was going to start a band it had to add to what already exists in music. Back then people actually believed in the pioneering spirit. Bands actually wanted to make a difference back then instead of today where everyone wants to fucking copy everybody. I grew up on HC bands like Big Black and Govt. Issue and Naked Raygun. At the same time I was into metal. Industrial European + Test Department, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Skinny Puppy (older was amazing), Young Gods from Switzerland.
So then what happened was Fred convinced me, he said, “look I know this guy who plays with me”…Fred played in this real cheesy metal band called Scream Machine. They were this real hair metal band. He’d been trying to get me to see one of their shows and I just wouldn’t go, you know. He kept badgering me though, ‘cuz Fred and I had a connection. He really liked my ideas, but unless the other people would be for real and committed, I didn’t want to have to inspire people to play. But Fred knew Gia Chuan Wang and said he was a trained musician, a trombonist who plays keyboards
Evans: Just about does it all.
Afzaal: There was a show that came to town. I was friends with Ministry from my Chicago days. They had gotten signed and were touring and shit. They came through and I used to hang out with them every time they went through. This was the third time they’d been to town and were playing fucking Madison Square Garden with Sepultura and Helmet! I was going to that gig and Fred was badgering me… I was taking Stevie with me and said I could only get a few people on the list, so I said why don’t you guys get tickets and we’ll meet at the show. Gia loved Ministry and Fred did too.
I met Gia for the first time at that show. So ‘93 was the Crisis beginning. They convinced me to jam. I had some stuff written. Before Gia, Fred and I had jammed once or twice with another guy named Greg. We were talking about calling the band HorsePower. It was sort of what we were gonna go under. “I don’t know how to sing and shit,” I had said. But I was singing. Gia and Fred and I jammed on some of the stuff I’d been working on with Fred. It was the early start of “8 Convulsions” material. Gia and Fred and I jammed twice then met Karyn two weeks later through Richard Hobbes who ended up doing all the photography for our “Deathshead Extermination” and “Hollowing” albums.
Evans: Fred, I can’t believe you went to the same fucking shitty high school as me and I didn’t know that! (*Note: One of the weirdest things from meeting Crisis and Afzaal on-line was learning that, while the later band line-up had relocated to L.A., the original drummer Fred Waring lived a few miles from me in Upstate, NY! I ended up driving to his old house and hanging out in his backyard when this interview section was conducted in ‘o4! We eventually became good friends and my best friend (original Shabutie/Coheed and Cambria drummer) Nate Kelley and I even worked for him for awhile and had many insane adventures with Fred. I once saw Fred almost tip a cherry-picker over from trying to pick up a huge dead tree in the bucket of the machine and he’d installed sub-woofers in it that were blasting Strapping Young Lad. Insane! But I digress…)
Fred Waring (original Crisis/Stalwart drummer): (laughing)
Evans: From your perspective what was it like meeting Afzaal and how did it all start? Also, how did you get into music?
Fred: Well I started playing drums at around 13. I was sort of forced into practicing by my step father who was already playing drums and was actually in a band with Buddy Rich as a vibes player. He was like a hard core Italian asshole who made me play the drums if I liked it or not but then I was happy because after only a year or so of practicing I was playing. I was playing shows in Woodstock and at 15 and 16 in Kingston, NY. We had a band, all like 16-18. We’d sell out the Joyous Lake (legendary Woodstock music venue, now closed). We’d literally pack the place and would have one adult guest like my stepfather and (jazz notable) Warren Bernhardt.
Evans: I was friend’s with his daughter in high school. This is too weird!
Fred: Well, I remember her since she was little. Anyway, after that I started playing in traveling show bands. Broadway show type stuff, which was sort of boring but it was good money and the people were always drunk wedding crowds. Off Broadway the Wiz, 2 years. It was funny because most of the shows were down south and we had a black guy and a white girl as lead singers so it was, y’know, “It’s the nigger with the white girl! Let’s get him!”
Evans: That’s insane.
Fred: We had a lot of trouble sometimes in Alabama and Georgia, places where they wanted to murder our singer. I was 18. Then I got involved in Stalwart. I answered an ad in the Village Voice and showed up and there was Afzaal and the singer and Mark Sloan, this maniac bass player. The keyboard player was Afzaal’s wife at the time. So I got there (in NY) and they asked about my style. I said I didn’t really have a style because I’ve played all kinds of stuff. I told them the kinds of bands I liked. I was into old shit and I probably told Afzaal I liked Led Zeppelin, which he hates (laughing), so he was probably laughing and thinking “Here’s another asshole that’s gonna get canned.” So he’s like “Well, what do you wanna try?” and I said, “Let’s start with the hardest song.” I think he and Mark looked at me and said “Ooh, you don’t wanna do that.” I said, “Yes I do, because if I can’t play the hardest thing then what’s the point?” So of course Afzaal whips out some ridiculously bizarre time signature and I somehow managed to get through it and that was it I guess. We started rehearsing and we may have only played one or two shows, and then the whole thing sort of caved in with soap opera stuff, but it was a really tight band, almost as if Ministry was less glamorous and more HC. I don’t know if Afzaal would agree. It was really challenging material and I hope it could be rekindled someday if he gets money and backing with the band, to bring some of that stuff back.
Evans: So the Horsepower?
Fred: Yeah, Then after that we had a band, we changed our name to Horsepower, sort of just goofing around and we ran an add, oh wait, no, it was another band I was in.
Evans: Scream machine?
Fred: Yeah, I think so, some stupid name like that… and Gia shows up with a 100 dollar bass like you could buy at Macy’s, the beginner bass. And the guitar player for that band was a really good guitar player and a nutcase maniac, heir to the owner of the Rubenstein Company, cosmetics. He comes from a wealthy family, a spoiled little brat. Great musician but a spoiled kid. He of course has this $2,000 guitar and Gia comes in with this crappy plastic bass but he could play. He wasn’t a bass player yet but he could play any note on the bass and be in tune because of his schooling. We stuck with him and he eventually got it. I told Afzaal about him and we wound up trying him out with that, but again he wasn’t playing bass, he was just playing notes. It took us a couple of years but finally we were able to get him to stop playing so many notes and slow down a bit and when he did he was fantastic. Then along came Karyn…
Evans: Norman, What was it like meeting Afzaal in NYC?
Norman Westberg (Swans guitarist): Stevie was playing bass in Swans and was working with Stalwart. They used to play at a club we always played at. I met him through Stevie, just walking around the neighborhood. I met him very early on when Crisis first started. Turns out Karyn was roommates with some people I knew as well. I didn’t know that until much later on.
Evans: What stood out about Crisis that made you think collaborating with them later would add to your repertoire and what you’d already accomplished?
Norman: Well, I just like trying to play everything and through talking with Afzaal, we were kind of interested in a lot of the same music. He likes heavier music than I do for the most part, but he also has the appreciation for a lot of different things and I like that. Everyone in Crisis, if you sat down with anyone of them it would be way out of left field. They were taking all of these various influences and bringing them in and making heavy music that was at one point very simple but difficult to do when it’s that simple. I just thought there was a lot of room for me to add a little thing to it if they wanted me too. I never would have gone on tour. They vaguely asked me when they were looking for another guitar player, but I wouldn’t want to dedicate myself to that music completely. It was fun to go in and do a few songs and maybe put something different in.
Evans: Gia, what got you into music when you were young?
Gia Chuan Wang (bass): In Tawain, when I was 5 or 6 my mother took me to take piano lessons. I started playing classical music, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, when I was a little older. Then trombone. I went to music school for kids in Taiwan. I came to the U.S. when I was 14. In my country, Taiwan, it’s not easy for people to leave the country, at least if you are a man. It is mandatory to join the army for two years. I won a national music competition and the government sent me out to study music.
Evans: That’s fucking amazing!
Gia: Yeah. They gave me the passport and I had the choice to pick any music school in the world and I moved to San Francisco. While in San Fran, I’d learn Metalicca on acoustics/Slayer. I got interested in those kinds of music around 16-17. I have some really old Metalicca shirts. I listened to it. I studied it. Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue, some more heavy, some rock, but I’m more into the real heavy ass metal. I liked the tonality and power of sounds that could come out of the instruments.
With Classical I was listening to Stravinsky, heavy classical. The most intense stuff. Metal had that quality, passionate and heavy. When you hear it your hair stands
Evans: What made you gravitate towards bass, Gia?
Gia: I first played guitar, then later a few months I switched to bass because I liked lower register. As a trombonist I played bass better. If I’d have been a trumpet player I probably would have picked guitar. So in 1990 I went to NY, graduated then was accepted to Manhattan School Of Music as a Trombone Major, still. I met Fred in NY, when I saw an ad he needed a bass player.
The band was called Scream Machine. It wasn’t heavy enough for me. When I joined the singer quit (laughing)
Evans: Afzaal, in your words, how’d you meet Karyn Crisis?
Afzaal: I lived in a loft by the seaport near a few artist’s lofts spread out between office buildings. These were lower east side tenement type buildings. Snuggled in with really tall buildings that hadn’t been torn down. Artists were living in them even though it wasn’t a residential area. The photographer Richard Hobbes lived in a loft by Fulton Fish Market. I knew him from Stalwart days when shows were at my loft. Artists and people would go to these and Richard was one of them.
One day he says, “Dude, I want you to meet new the roommate, she’s an artist. She knows of you from Chicago.” I’m like really? Because Stalwart was a pretty underground band, a hardly known name…but we had toured the Midwest and were big into graffiti and shit. Stalwart graffiti was all over New York, anywhere we toured. Madison, Wisconsin, all those places. Karyn used to work at Wax Trax where I used to shop and all my buddies used to work there. Some of the guys who were roadies of Ministry. The singer of Thrill Kill Kult…Karyn used to work there but she was after I left Chicago already. So she knew some of my friends. We met and she played me her 4 track Neubaten-esque out there industrial stuff. I played her my stuff with Gia/Fred. The thing I liked about her voice was she had a very instrumental, experimental approach to her voice, and it didn’t sound like anybody I knew. This was gonna be something different.
Evans: What was it like for you, Karyn?
Karyn Crisis: After time passed, I wanted to move out of the lower east side. Too many druggy roommates and creepy situations. I moved in to Seaport with Richard Hobbes, who had a couple of rooms where he always had borders. He knew me from the scene and had a big loft. So (laughing) I was borrowing his kitchen knives a lot to use in recordings. One day he was like, “Why are all my knives disappearing?” I played him my music and he said, “You’ve gotta meet Stevie and Afzaal.”
I remembered Stalwart stickers from Chicago and I couldn’t escape the call to do it. To breach new ground within myself, constantly having to break through walls I’d built around myself. I’d built a lot of walls to hold myself in. The fact was that at this time I was extremely angry, getting into fights, completely defensive. Musically, all I had to show Afzaal was my Mangle Dorothy stuff. I played it for them. He and Stevie had stuff and got it played for me and some early Crisis demos. I started freaking out because this was the kind of music I’d been looking for my whole life, you know!
Evans: Afzaal, Had you considered a female vocalist before?
Afzaal: Yeah. See what happened was Fred and I had a bug in our heads that we knew we were super heavy. The only metal I was into back then was like Napalm and Bolt Thrower and shit. I wasn’t into death Metal at all and I wasn’t into metal other than some of the early slayer stuff and Metalicca and Megadeth stuff. I thought metal was cheesed out.
Evans: Take the sock out of yr pants, boys?!!
Afzaal: (laughing) I was really into Motorhead and Iron Maiden and the NWOBHM. I’d seen all those bands play live in England in small clubs and stuff. That wasn’t glam; it was like street metal, punk influenced. It seemed more genuine. Some of the USA metal bands were sort of cheesy. They were influenced by the tradition but took it a little further and were glammed out. I didn’t like the falsetto vocals. I didn’t like Dickinson when he joined Maiden. I was into Paul (the original
singer for Maiden), but even some of the English bands got cheesier and cheesier. I really liked the guitars and stuff but wasn’t into the vocals. So, I was into Bolt Thrower and Napalm Death because they played super fast but also dirgy stuff. A lot of the Thrash bands could only play fast like Overkill and Anthrax and shit. I couldn’t stand it. I never liked them. I was into noise and I wanted to slow shit down. I was into Melvins and a lot of the alternative bands in college, all sorts Scratch Acid, Black Flag, Dead Kennedy’s, Circle Jerks, Laughing Hyenas.
Afzaal: Yeah, Alternative underground U.S. HC. I wanted to incorporate all that into the music via art rock, ala Swans. Prong was like that, a band who were doing the same thing. The first people I met in NY when I went
to CB’s was Norm from Swans and Tommy Victor from Prong. He was a sound guy who hung out. I went to see Sonic Youth, Black Snakes and Live Skull, which were big NY noise bands. Of course I met Norman and Tommy. I wanted to fuse metal and noise and meeting Karyn I saw that opening. I thought I might be able to start a rock band and not sound
like anybody else.
Evans: So for you it was always more about playing than wanting a rock n’ roll
Afzaal: I started living rock n’ roll as a freshman in college. Throughout college, I was a mowhawked street urchin 4/5nights a week, a dj at parties, clubs. I never really stopped after I moved to NY.
Evans: Karyn, how did things develop after that?
Karyn: Afzaal liked my Mangle Dorothy stuff, and he said they were looking for a singer. I was excited but didn’t take that seriously because I’d been let down before. I said yes but wouldn’t keep my hopes up. It seemed too good to be true. I lived literally a couple blocks away. We ended up hanging out. Richard knew Afzaal from the lower east side music and art scene. He’d have loft parties and I got to know Stevie. I got an instrumental tape, a copy of rehearsal with several renditions of “Drilling Me”. I wrote all the words in my head and knew the vocal styles. I called him and woke him up and couldn’t wait to do
it…but then the closer it got to going to the rehearsal I got really nervous. Am I gonna really be able to pull this off? I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve never sung words like this. I started getting cold feet.
Evans: Karyn, tell me in your words about the first rehearsal, please?
Karyn: So I went and met everyone in the band. Gia was kind of scary looking because he had really long hair and didn’t talk. It was a real rehearsal space, so I was like “fuck.” I asked to do “Drilling Me” first because I was ready and if they weren’t into what I was doing I didn’t want to spend any extra time there. I wanted to get the fuck out. So they played the song and I don’t know what happened but the energy flowed through me and I started thrashing around the room, just like I am these days. Completely uninhibited. I was dreads all over, shrunken into weird shapes and bright red. Patchwork bellbottoms and a total street urchin. Screaming my brains out and all I remember is the song ended and I was on the floor on my back and Gia comes over and asked, “Are you okay?” I was thinking like, “Oh man, I just made an ass out of myself”. I said, “OK guys, I’m gonna go to the bathroom and wash my face.” I heard them talking and was like, Oh, gosh…I had to get out of there! Sure enough I go back in the room and all the talking stops, like dead silence. I was thinking the worst, like they think I’m crazy…(laughing) but they really liked it and
The very next rehearsal Afzaal came up with the name Crisis. It was similar to what I was feeling.
Fred Waring (Drums): I remember at the 1st rehearsal, Karyn changed her shirt very quickly and put on another one and Afzaal and I’s eyes popped out of our heads. I don’t think Gia was paying attention. We were like 3 vultures with a woman, and Karyn of course is so pretty she’ll attract anyone’s attention. I said to Afzaal, we have to have a rule here; nobody tries to screw the singer. Let’s make an agreement. Keep the band from breaking up, you must promise… ‘cuz I had already had a slew of relationships and of course Karyn was beautiful but I was thinking to myself, “Stay away.”
Karyn was immediately making lyrics and was able to start quickly, so she fit right in. It was pretty amazing. Then it was a lot of grueling rehearsals and arguments, mostly between me and Afzaal, with me wanting to play the songs fast and him wanting to slow them down. He was really into the grime and I was more into intensity like Nuclear Assault. We ended up compromising and writing both. And of course when you play live, even the masters Metalicca, once you get the adrenaline pumping it’s really hard not to speed up, so even on some of their live stuff you can hear them play it almost twice as fast.
Listening back to a lot of our live tapes some shows I was able to hold the band back, but depending on how wacky and crazy it was getting with the audience and the more intense, it was harder. The more Karyn would be jumping into the crowd the harder it would be to control the tempo because I would be laughing at what was going on while Karyn was whipping people with her dreads. And people tried to kill each other! It was hard to pay attention sometimes and I had to sort of ignore everything on the more difficult songs to not screw up. If I watched her too much it was like watching a movie. I’d forget what I was doing. One fuck up and Afzaal would turn around and look at me and we could lose the whole song in the matter of a few bars. That didn’t happen very often and when it did sometimes we could fix it and if you listen back to the tapes that would often be hilarious, the ways we fixed things. There were never any boring or dull moments. It was always either working hard on stuff or fighting. I guess it was mostly musical arguments between Afzaal and me about tempo, not too much about content or arrangement. I was playing too fast and didn’t notice.
Evans: Anything else come to mind?
Fred: Karyn and I got into it quite a bit at certain points, because I guess I was a male chauvinist sort of type and maybe wasn’t acting appropriately in certain cases. I think we over came that, I think. As time goes by things sort of heal. Now there’s no problem at all.
Evans: Early on, Afzaal, you did the majority of the writing. Was it difficult switching to a more democratic approach?
Afzaal: No, man, it wasn’t because the approach existed. Between “There Goes My Soul” and “Sweething” there’s a noise, vocal accapella thing of Karyn’s, improvised noise experiment. So I was into doing that from the get go, here’s a song, here’s something without structure, an open mood piece. That’s where they started writing it all too but it didn’t get epic until the “Deathshead Extermination” Metal Blade album where we started incorporating the mood pieces within song structure. (Ex. “The Watcher” or the end of “Aftermath”). Opening up the songs even more, before trying to find a break for mood pieces.
Evans: What was it like making the “8 convulsions” debut?
Gia: Stevie did a good job recording it. It Sounds pretty… heavy! (laughs)
Fred: We recorded it as a demo, but thanks to Steve McCallister, a terrific engineer… the studio was not that great but he worked really hard on the sound. That was probably one of the most difficult recordings I’ve ever done in terms of holding back the tempos and making sure the songs were solid and not just like a demo. It was a demo but ended up as a record.
Afzaal: Ok, that recording, 1st of all, was recorded on 16 track one inch. Many people use 24 tracks, 2 inch tape. Divide the 2 inch tape into 24 tracks and that’s the space you get. With the 16 track you get the same track width as 24 track tape but we couldn’t afford twenty four tracks as easily at time. Stevie’s idea. A good one at the time was to use the one inch. The album cost 15 bucks an hour, in the basement of this building in Soho underneath a subway station. We had to stop recording every time the fucking trains went by! We recorded at that studio and amazingly enough, after that so did the Breeders, Sonic Youth…it was this hip place to record. We told everyone not to because it was a shithole (laughing). No fresh air! Even today all the stoner rock bands are going there. Bottom, an all girl NYC band. We did it 10 years ago.
I had just bought my Ibanez and wasn’t happy with it but fuck it. I started blocking the Floyd rose tremolo to keep it in tune, it goes out a lot. Used an amazing bass cab. Am peg with 9 speakers in it V formation, pretty unique, 3 left and right and one in the middle and then the same beneath. Extra wide cab, wider than any I’d ever seen. I played guitar through it and got some of the monster tones from that. So the bass guitar and regular guitar
sounded closer. About 800 bucks for that record was all we spent.
Evans: What do you think are the strongest and weakest points?
Afzaal: The Strongest points are we were dealing with fundamental musical directions that would form what Crisis became. In a way we were making the many branches to our songwriting tree. We used all these approaches, melodic, noise,
atmospheric. On “8 Convulsions” it wasn’t as synthesized. Some people would say we never synthesized it. A lot of critics of the band have said we don’t know how to write songs, because we were so varied. So we were dealing with every song as a different animal/art piece. Stevie was well versed with no problems in treating each song completely differently. We called it “8 Convulsions” because the songs were so different. 8 different gyrations of what we were as a band. We never intended to put it out all as one thing.
Evans: There is still a thread though!
Afzaal: It was not a conscious record. “Deathshead” and “Hollowing” had a specific attitude. “Deathshead” was a very extreme/emotional/violent record. “Hollowing” is more introverted and pensive and was the search for the soul type of record.
Karyn: Looking back, people thought this is really weird shit we were doing but it’s (laughs) pretty commercial sounding if you look at the way things are today.
Evans: That “Innervisions” song by System Of A Down that was all over radio has practically the same riff as “Drilling Me” at points.
Karyn: In the music scene our writing structure was pretty ahead of its’ time. We also talked about society. Yeah, for me I guess that social aspect was really always there. It was the first time I was getting together with a group of men in a band, the first time I felt uninhibited and didn’t feel nervous and I felt free and so it was really a communication between the sexes and that’s where the social aspect comes from. In a weird way a lot of the lyrics conveyed what we were going through as a band of men and woman coming together, so it was a complex social album in that way.
Evans: Gia, on “More Than Down” there’s a slap-pop bass line. Were you ever worried about incorporating that style?
Gia: I didn’t care if people liked it or not. Even then I was still studying metal and liked Obituary, but I also liked Chili Peppers, and for a bass player I wanted to show that I could do a slap bass line (in a new way!). Anything goes.
Evans: lyrically, “8 Convulsions” stands out as strong.
Karyn: It was really open. They let me do whatever I wanted to do. “Rotten Anyway” was a song about a homeless man, because when you move to NY one of the things you’re confronted with is homeless people. They’re everywhere. My whole aspect with the song was the hopelessness I had of doing nothing and I was writing about this old man and how it made me sad to look at him but he was kind of like, well I equated the shitty part of his life to the shitty part of my own… “You’re a piece of shit and I’m a tired piece of ass”. People tend to look down on homeless people as being a waste of life. I was not doing a whole lot about it. When I first moved to NY I’d help people but you get callous to it in the end, it was a darker vision of things. It wasn’t like I saw and felt bad for this guy and turned into a work of art and rescued him, it was more that I didn’t have anything to rescue him with. I was a barren human too in that I didn’t feel the power within me and had gotten used to seeing homeless people.
Another one of my favorite songs was “There Goes My Soul”, which is inspired by a lot of the times my introverted side was due to the fact that I would write about my whole life story in terms of another character, like in a comic book. I would describe myself in the story of these characters, all aspects of myself, but through the eyes of the characters. That song was inspired by Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel.
Evans: Awesome. I love The Invisibles. Probably my fave comic series ever.
Karyn: Remember, in Arkham there’s a shot of a crazy old man in a prison cell and he was etching his life story in a gigantic spiral that filled the whole room? At that time I was feeling a lot of emptiness, feeling pretty hollow as a person and dealing with the terrifying aspects of confronting that. That song was about that and is one of my favorites.
Evans: How about the confrontational “Sweething”? This song deals with sexism and gender issues and has always remained a fan favorite.
Karyn: “Sweething”, I can’t remember who it was inspired by. A lot of times I’ll write songs about some asshole that I met or knew or someone I decided to lash at with my own opinions. “Sweething” was largely inspired by the whole experience, and I don’t know if it’s still the same way, certainly not in California, but you could not go down the street anywhere in NYC without being sexually harassed. I don’t mean someone just saying “Hey, come suck my dick, baby”, but people would get caught staring and if you said to fuck off they’d threaten to beat you or would get violent. Or I’m trying to buy a bagel at the bagelry downstairs and the guy wouldn’t give it to you unless… you know, people would verbally insult you or physically insult you and not allow you to defend yourself. It was a way of life, being abused. Everyone I know went through it. It’s really strange that it’s not around anymore, but that was just really a conversation directed at these assholes on the street, you know.
A lot of the songs were the reflections of relationships I’d had, the chasms that can exist between men and women and me trying to break away from that whole thing and liberate myself. “More Than Down”, obviously is more about female stereotypes.
Evans: How about “Gemini”, the especially ethereal piece?
Karyn: Gemini was fun, based on a Mangle Dorothy poem. Jamming on it was really beautiful, almost like a pop song. I Listened to Sugarcubes, pre-Bjork days and that melody came out of that influence. It was a sad sort of song about giving of yourself to someone else until you had nothing left. Afzaal picked the title for that, the only one he ever picked the title for. It was a male female type of song and it became a really interactive song live. I had a friend who was a groundskeeper for a grade school and he got me a ton of glitter.
Evans: Uh oh…the glitter!
Karyn: What I did was I originally threw glitter around for that song, all over people. He ended up supplying me with several garbage bags /tubs of glitter. It became a song that people always wanted; it was kind of a feel good song, but heavy and interactive. People felt a part of it. And I’ll never forget, one time we played this big show with members of Naked Raygun. It was a CMJ thing. We’d just gotten done playing and we’d played that song and I was hanging at the merch booth and this huge muscular hulking guy came to the bar. He didn’t have a shirt on and he was covered in glitter. He looked like a real mean guy, you know. His friend was like “look, he’s got glitter all over himself”, and I thought for sure he was gonna be like “Yeah, that fucking bitch”.
But he was like “Yeah, I love it”. People would be like, “I had glitter in my hair for a week after” and someone else would say, “Well I had it in my hair for two weeks”. People really liked it because they felt they were being reached out to and touched.
Evans: What were early shows like? Were people really clicking?
Karyn: In rehearsals I was uninhibited for the 1st time in my life. A lot of my writings from before the band fit perfectly into these songs. I had no fear. I’ve had none since. I’d gone through a lot of fear when I write my songs, so it was really amazing, the best time of my life. And the time came when we played our first CB’s show and the reason I got nervous again was that all the musicians and artists and friends I’d met through Afzaal and Stevie were there and had something to say about me. They were all trying to tell me what to do and it was not all positive. People would tell me, I was new at this, and I didn’t recognize the power I had. Stevie had all these ideas about mics on the boom stand with effects and non-effects…kind of Diamanda Galas style. A lot of it was constants in my ear about what was professional what was not. I was a ball of nerves that night. I was not comfortable standing still with a
microphone in front of me.
I think what happened was we played a song called “Child in the Rushes” and I played guitar. I turned around to make sure my amp was alright and I knocked over the mic stands. After that I was like fuck this, so we did “Drilling Me”. I let loose and freaked out all over the stage and it felt good. Afzaal told me Hilly (CBGB’s owner) came to the front of the stage and watched us, which apparently was special. He’s seen it all and is pretty jaded by music or not impressed by all of it and it was a real crowning glory to have Hilly come up and watch us, something that didn’t happen often. I didn’t realize the weight of it until later. After that, I decided fuck all the shit,
I’m doing it my way.
Karyn: After that I was fine. I didn’t have any other nervousness. Well, once at
Brownie’s. Then, Mark Sloan, a bassist from Stalwart, helped me out. I felt pressured from all these people and almost didn’t feel my own emotions anymore and he told me a piece of advice that stuck with me years after and I won’t be able to say it word for word. It was basically that because of the style of my singing, because of the words I was using, because of the emotional wounds I was letting out, what I was doing was giving people who didn’t have a voice a voice. That helped to raise my confidence, as it was my duty. And it erased fears, so I found my voice. I’m lucky. I owe it to other people who’ve suffered. Not in a martyr way, either, it is just that I can appreciate what I have and not take it for granted, to not abuse it, to have humbleness towards it and know that it’s something bigger than myself. And I shouldn’t worry about my own fears too much. I love playing to a new crowd and breaking them in. That challenge is fucking awesome.
Afzaal: In NY on the periphery we were not really part of any scene. Not noise, not NYHC. Not grunge. Not death or grindcore either. We couldn’t find a place to get gigs…CB’s we ended up at the most but again, the reason was our first gig ever was at CB’s, a happenstance. Virgil, the drummer of Swans at time had an 8 piece ensemble orchestra who played Knitting Factory. John Zorn. Elliot Sharp. Virgil booked the show; he was part of the avant movement in NY, under Glenn Branca. Branca composed with him, old school, he’s been in the NY scene from the get go. The two big bands were Swans and S.Youth. The Swans were this ugly fucking type of band and S.Youth was this ethereal pretty type of band. SY became huge and Swans never did, but Virgil knew everybody in that scene… Branca was the connection.
Virgil played with Branca. Thurston Moore did, Page Hamilton, the sharing of musicians under one umbrella. So we got our first break. There were 7 bands that night and we were second to last, the Tuesday night graveyard shift. All these hoity toity pretensions people are in the crowd and here we are this metal band, weirded out. Somehow it worked and went over well. We did some instrumentals… Karyn played guitar and drill bit to make swells.
Coney Island High didn’t exist back then (and now is gone again). It used to take me 2-3 months to book a gig at CB’s. Louise gets inundated with calls and ends up giving try out nights. She’s very fair that way but wouldn’t gimme a gig. I hounded her. “Give me an off night and I’ll book the whole show.” She gave me the Fourth of July. She got fed up and gave me July 4th. A “bad night” when nobody goes out. I booked all out of town bands who were so excited to play the legendary CB’s they brought tons of heads. None of the bands were from Manhattan except Crisis. People were so excited they came by the fucking busload. Louise was fucking in shock. She couldn’t fucking believe we made so much money. Actually, the only other band from Manhattan was Thwig. Which was Norman and Al from Swans and John Berry, the original guitar player from Beastie Boys. Nobody knew them. It was one of their 1st gigs. 1000 Young from Albany played.
After that, things were flowing. I always did shows myself and have booked the whole bill every time since. Complete control. That’s how we developed a scene. Bands like Candiria couldn’t get gigs to save their fucking life. I’m the one, along with Ralphie Boy, the singer from Disassociate, who promoted as a promoter way before me. I only booked when we played too. (Still, though) Bands like Starkweather, Candiria and Disassociate got a foothold off those and got bigger.
Fred Waring: A challenge then was staying alive. Paying for stuff. in NY… I didn’t really have any influence on the actual writing of the material, only on the arrangement. I would say Afzaal deserves quite a bit of praise for his choice of the songs and how he structured them. It’s like no other music, I mean, you couldn’t really compare it to anything at all. The choice of each song on the cd and the way they were written was quite an accomplishment. Gia, he had some influence in the beginning but mostly arrangement-wise. Afzaal wrote the songs. When I listen to it now I’m wondering how he came up with some of the stuff and how it was so different yet kept within a similar sound and groove.
Evans: John, tell us about those CB’s hard-core shows Afzaal booked?
John Murren (friend, scenester): I’d gotten to know about them from Rennie, from Starkweather. Finally when I first saw Crisis it was summer 94Õ. They played at the Cooler, on 14th st in the old meat district. The club was like an old meat locker thing. It was pretty tripped out place. It was a weird show with Crisis headlining, Starkweather and Disassociate opening. Even then it was really cool. I mean, you’re talking about a band from Philly, and Disassociate was playing one of their first shows, and Crisis was still working on their demo. They could already draw 200 people a show at this point. They grew rather quickly. They became a CBGB’s caliber headlining band quickly.
The crowd was pretty bugged earlier on. When they’d start playing with some of the HC bands…All Out War and Starkweather, that’s when more metal and HC kids discovered them. Earlier on, it’s hard to even label. You had artsy fartsy kids, college kids. You definitely had a lot of girls who were getting into them and lots of people who knew Afzaal from the older noise rock scene. And it was one of the bands where right at the start you had girls up front just wildin out. Yeah, the earlier days were fascinating. It was almost like they ended up joining a scene they didn,t even know about. The HC scene more or less. They didn’t really end up knowing a lot of the people they ended up knowing, like Met from Too Damn Hype who ended up pressing the 1st cd. He turned them on to a lot of people and that helped them open up to the East Coast a lot. They got into places a lot of HC bands had known about forever, like the QE2. Chicago.
Evans: John, you were really into Starkweather, who were label mates on Too Damn Hype with Crisis and Candiria in the beginning, right?
John: Yeah, they did an LP for Harvest and a TooDamn Hype re-release. Starkweather smokes every band that’s been jocking their shit since. Fore front. If you talk to bands today like Converge or the guys from Killswitch and Overcast or whatever, they’ll all tell you Starkweather was at the forefront. Every scene blows up there’s the forgotten forefathers. They’re one of them.
Early Crisis days, an aspect that was really interesting and a vibe they held on to all the way through the “Deathshead Extermination” record, there was a period between ‘94 and ‘98 in NY…it faded out then because political shit started to get in the way or some bands were just dropping off anyway, but …political where when other bands got big they didn’t want to share the stage with others.
Afzaal had a good rapport with CB’s. He put on a lot of shows there. In doing that he had some eclectic shows because he wasn’t really coming from the metal scene or NYHC, so there was a nice little period where some of these shows were just absolutely fascinating. You’d have Crisis, Starkweather, Disassociate, Candiria, bands like a lot of Too Damn Hype bands…Negative Male Child, Withstand from Albany, Compression from Baltimore, a super awesome mix of heavy music. The Afzaal shows in the mid 90’s at CB’s were like a fucking party to appreciate everything. They were tied somehow, though. When Rennie first told me about Crisis he’d say, “They’re kind of like us, they don’t really sound like us but they’re just as crazy and esoteric, bringing in mad different shit.”
Then there was Disassociate, who were grind-core but brought in a lot of punk shit, avant garde element (power electronics). They’d also do a lot of trippy shit on stage. Sometimes they’d wear make-up for a show. Then Candiria who were finding their sound then, starting to break away from the death metal they’d been doing (into more urban fusion). The shows were packed. Hellbound would play a lot of the shows, they were an old school thrash band but they were ghetto kids. The crowd showed diversity too. Hellbound brought ghetto kids from the projects and it was great because there was hardly ever any shit and A LOT of HC kids were getting into Candiria. A lot of the metal heads too. Crisis’ crowds had a lot of females and artsy kids coming as late as midnight knowing they’d be going on.
Evans: Gia, how would you compare the old days to your life now?
Gia: The old days were maybe more rebellish. Now I’m married. I miss the old days. Now I have more limits. Not so much limits in music. Limits in lifestyle. When you get older you understand more stuff and there’s more limits, you have more pressures in life. And my wife…I don’t know if I want to bring her on tour.
John: Crisis in the day, they’d usually play their own shows. Starkweather and All Out War helped get a lot of HC kids into them. Candiria got metal heads into them. Hellbound got ghetto, rap and metal kids into them. Big obscure party … you couldn’t just call it a HC show. I wasn’t there enough in the 80’s to say it wasn’t there in the 80’s, but at least for the 90’s it was the one time in the NY underground where things were like a Utopian Society. Afzaal wasn’t afraid to put bands on that were different. Towards the end he was doing it more but it revolved around less NY bands.
They were all HC at some level, (the aesthetic) but that’s the only thing. For me some of those shows were the early harbinger of what was too come in Metal-core now, being that emotive but technical musically. Starkweather and Crisis both had incredibly tortured vocalists. Starkweather had epic 8 minute songs where one part wasn’t repeated (ie: Botch, “We are the Romans”) and early Crisis was so eclectic that “8 convulsions” is all different…I mean, All Out War, look at how big Hatebreed is now. All Out War was doing that shit way before them, fuck yeah. They were at the forefront of the scene.
Evans: Karyn, you come from an arts background and designed the band logo and many of the graphic images incorporated in your CD’s. Could you tell me about that side of yourself and the logo creation?
Karyn Crisis: What happened was, I always did a lot of art and when the band started, we needed posters and it was a big deal. That was how to advertise then, so people went all out. And Afzaal in Stalwart were pros at it. They’d cover whole walls at a time, and no one else in Crisis was doing any artwork, so I was like, “Fuck, I’ll do it”. One thing about Crisis that was cool was that Fred and Gia weren’t involved in a lot other than the music part so there was a lot of room for me to come in and do whatever.
A lot of the ideas were based on gritted teeth, mouths, eyeballs…emotional terror. Our first 1st demo was a color panel and, this is embarrassing, a mouth with gritted teeth peeled open and drawings around it conveying tension. Inside was lyrics and a circuit board of old radio circuits and tinfoil and we actually Xeroxed it that way, it was really different looking. And, uh… funny thing was, Afzaal was warning me, because I didn’t know about heavy music, what other bands had done, and he was a big fan of Swans and I had heard of the Swans back in middle school or whatever, but I’d never followed their career. I couldn’t get a hold of any of their records, so anyway, we met Micahel Gira (Swans front man) at a certain point because Afzaal and Stevie had known him and we were picking up some speaker cabs from him and Afzaal had told me about the Filth album cover and it had teeth on the front of it. I didn’t think about it. Next I got into dismembered bodies, moving on to character designs and flyers. I did half man/woman ideas, elements of destroying the body/rebuilding it.
Evans: Some people thought it was intimidation, but I thought it was more about cleansing?
Karyn: It was more about reflecting my terror in the world. The space I was in when I met the guys in Crisis, Afzaal was a savior in a way, because he was trying to help me to focus my anger into music. I had some trauma in my life that made me view relationships in a very angry, victimized way. I couldn’t trust people, plus New York was like I told you…I looked so different… People think of NY as a freaky, cool L.E.S. community, but even back then I had people threatening me in the L.E.S. telling me they’d cut my hair because I had dreads. I was small and confident at the same time and tough, and I provoked all these different reactions in people who could not figure out why I was the way I was. People were attacking me from all sides, I was extremely a ball of fury. Always ready to get into a fight. Afzaal said to save your strength for the bigger fight.
Evans: How about the band Symbol (Two Knives held forward by a living
Karyn: I was always about men/women and what damages them. People say men tend to externalize and women internalize. There were lots of muggings and knifings in those days. I really embraced the knife as a symbol of power…I’m very against guns because it is like throwing death… impersonal.
I was into primal aspects of music/artwork. I had a problem with people being shot. If you’re going to kill some one you should do it with your hands. Respect and acknowledge the fact of the life you’ve taken…the way is with a knife or hands.
Obviously I’m not the kind of person who’s going to go around killing anyone. I realize that that’s not an option for me. At that time period I wanted a weapon against my world and for me it was the knife because it was real to me. A gun was a guy thing, not dealing with the reality of emotions of life/anger. Somehow the knife was a friend of mine. So we had packages made with the logo incorporated and the guy making them sent us letter. He felt knives are violence against women. I said, “I AM a woman!” I’d embraced the knife, symbolic of primal reality, self-protection, and tribalism.
Evans: Karyn, how did you get people to move beyond the idea of a girl singer as a novelty?
Karyn: Ultimately I won’t really know what the other people thought. Our whole thing when we started was not even knowing we were a small microcosm existing in
harmony, multi ethnic, multi gender. We always had ideas. One of the things was we were all equal. People go through issues, but… for some reason at the time we didn’t want to be marketed as a female band. It was a trend at the time. Riot Grrrls had started, which we were into, but a lot of people were pressuring me, because of the other girls that were out there, asking “Was I a feminist”? My whole stance is, well… I’m a feminist but I’m also a humanist in that my form of feminism included men, because how can you exist in or change the world if you’re going to be segregational? That’s not gonna happen. So, I always thought, like, ok, I’ll have a few woman’s issue songs, but also have songs all about how men and women are the same on an
Evans: Any trouble from male fans getting over-eager?
Karyn: One time a guy tried to throw beer on my crotch and I broke his nose. I didn’t know I broke it until later.
Evans: John, do you recall Karyn getting flack as a girl singer?
John: I think in NY you got away with that shit more and on an underground level it was more personal because everyone really did know everyone else, but a lot of the stuff you’d hear about the female thing for Crisis, it was never overt. At least I didn’t hear it. The only thing I can think of was that one Middletown show where someone yelled something about a girl in the band. You rarely got to hear much of that “Hey, take it off” shit at a show. I think part of that was because, while Karyn may have only weighed 85 pounds soaking wet, would you fuck with her? Back then, she looked almost like a squatter or something. She looked like someone from the bottom who you wouldn’t want to fuck with, like she’d strangle you with one of those four feet long dreadlocks.
Fred: We always like to think as musicians probably that without our contributions a band couldn’t be successful, that we were superior to the average metal. I still think without Karyn it would have probably not been as dramatic and easy to get hooked on so quickly. I think it was her. When I think about the band and miss it and maybe wish I could still work with them, it’s probably mostly missing her, y’know, no love thing, but missing performing with her. Afzaal too. Gia I could care less, no…Just kidding.
Most of my life playing music, the concentrated part of it was those years in Crisis. I had other shows that were a blast, even playing weddings where everyone was either drunk or getting there. Performing is fun as a musician, if people are happy and the band is good. But as far as being blown away by a show and getting off stage and having sweat like two gallons of fluid out in the best workout of your life, that was what Crisis was about.
John: Nowadays it’s not so uncommon to have a female vocalist. There are always phases. Now it’s not rare. At the time Karyn was a bit of a weird thing. Starkweather had a girl on bass… Michelle Edison. Disassociate had a big Dominican frontman, a short guitar dude, there was flavor there. Starkweather got on stage and they looked like they came from work. Nobody was really rocking tats or wearing the popular outfits of the day in the early 90’s. They just got up there and they were amazing. They had this amazing metal drummer.
Crisis…they looked like they crawled out of the sewers. They were just dirty looking, and they sounded dirty! They had a girl singer and a middle eastern guitarist and a far eastern bassist! And the drummer was a fucking head-case! It was a weird vibe. Candiria was similar too. They had Carley, a black front man. Hellbound was raw, ghetto metal. Kreator style thrash metal meets Sepultura. If you heard it on the tape you’d think they were from Germany or Wisconsin or something. Two guys from the projects and a drummer who used government checks to pay for his kit. They were warped out.
Fred from Crisis, you would just look at Fred and think he was the meanest guy on the planet, for some reason. We’d go to these shows after we knew them and you’d see Fred and you wouldn’t even want to say hello to him. He was kind of aloof from the whole scene, if you will. He would go the show, walk around with a weird look in his eye and then get up on stage and be fucking amazing. It’s just the way he operated. Finally it happened and came about that I was hanging out with them more and I got to talking with Fred and you find out he’s actually the coolest guy. Fred’s mad cool, but he’s definitely flakey. I mean, you’re talking about a guy who left 5 days before a tour.
Fred: The only reason I left the band was when my daughter was born. The Propain tour we had would have been three months. During that time I could have made money I needed with the job I had and not have to be too far from home and I had a mortgage payment at the time of about 1,400 a month including taxes, so money was an issue. She was just about to be born and they wanted to take this tour.
I wanted to postpone it a month or so until the child was born and they all said no and I could not leave and that was the first time I had to back out. Jason Bittner (Shadow’s fall) luckily filled in from Stigmata, an excellent drummer. He wound up being a bit of a pussy on stage I guess in front of larger crowds, but he was one of my favorite drummers so I was happy that he was doing it. I still enjoy listening to the stuff he did on The Hollowing.
They went on their way with a couple different drummers. I came back now and again. It was fun for me as an old fart to get to see old friends and perform with the band again, which was always a thrill. We hardly had any shows where there was a Spinal Tap crowd of four people and all your best friends are clapping. maybe we had 2 shows and that’s it. We would always win the crowd over, even at our quietist shows in Ohio or Pennsylvania where there were 25 or 30 people, even those were fun. There were some shows where we weren’t sure or not whether we were gonna get booed off the stage because, let’s say it was all skinheads, and Karyn was even able to overcome shows like that. If it wasn’t for her half those shows would have been questionable, especially if we had just a dorky guy screamer. She had that much control, plus you could understand most of what she says. A big thing in the beginning was that I was trying to get Karyn to sing more, she has a lovely singing voice, and she wanted to scream more. That was probably the beginning of the fights between me and Karyn. I wanted her to sing more because she had a great voice but she was in charge of what she did.
Evans: Fred, What was it like when you first started seeing that people were really responding to Crisis?
Fred: It was great. It was a lot more rewarding than a bunch of wedding guests. It was a great feeling of achievement knowing that original material was being accepted right off the bat by people who had never heard it. Going into towns like Mass and Connecticut and places where we played where there was definitely a clique and a scene, we would overcome discomfort immediately and usually be the end of the 1st song we’d have the crowds attention. I think Karyn was mostly responsible for being able to do that. 50% was maybe because she was a pretty girl and the other %50 because she was talented and had a good stage presence. She would probably not want to think of it as 50/50 but you can’t argue with it, she’s a very beautiful girl, er…woman…sorry Karyn, if you’re reading this.
3. “There Goes My Soul” – Conclusion
From the onset of experimental heavy music in the 60’s and 70’s, with the groundwork laid by archetypal bands of Godlike stature such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, to the 80’s sprawl of various sub-categories of extreme music (i.e.: all the various off shoots of punk, metal and the 90’s “alternative”), very few bands have managed to stand as a map between history, present and future. Tool, arguably draw lines down all roads. A band like The Haunted have shed any fears they may have ever had and create with no limits. Crisis, without a doubt!
The mere existence of this band defies convention and settled for social norms, with each member having defied expectations and preconceived roles to have gotten where they are. As we near the midway point of the first decade in the new century, Crisis are a pivotal force for mapping the highways behind us and the new expression of the future. If we are to survive, we’ll certainly as a society need to learn from the example of a group like this, whose members straddled comfortably all sorts of ethnic and gender divides that much of the rest of the world tragically hasn’t yet overcome.
Old school band B&W pics by Richard Hobbes 1995.
Special thanks to Fred, Karyn, Jackie, Elodie.